Off-Road

for Martin Lucas

I started out the day spinning my car into a ditch before dawn. When it was spinning I didn’t know where it was going, only that I wasn’t in control of it. There might have been a tree waiting for me, or another car, or a cliff. It was too dark to tell.

I felt a deep terror and curiosity. And later, as my car was being winched by the tow truck back up the slope to the road with me at the wheel, as if to begin the whole roller-coaster ride over again: joy.

black ice
looking for
clarification


The events in this haibun didn’t happen this morning, or any morning recently. I’d actually forgotten I’d written this, but I rediscovered it when I conducted a search of my email today for any mention of or correspondence with Martin Lucas.

Martin was the erstwhile editor of the great British haiku journal Presencehe was a very fine haiku poet, and the author of one of the most influential essays of the last decade about writing haiku: “Haiku as Poetic Spell.” He had a keen analytical mind and was one of the few people in the Western world to have received a doctorate for studying haiku. He was a kind man and a good editor; when I sent work to Martin I knew I could count on him to say something insightful about it, whether or not he chose to publish it. I say “was” because–as many of you know by now–Martin disappeared from his home in Preston, England a few weeks ago, and his body was found on a beach nearby yesterday. He was 51.

I rediscovered my haibun above when I searched my email for Martin’s name, because a couple of years ago when I wrote it, I accidentally sent it to Martin instead of to the friend with a similar name I’d meant to send it to. He must have thought this very strange–we weren’t so close that I’d ever have deliberately just sent him off a fairly personal haibun with no other explanation. But he didn’t question me about it or express confusion, just sent me back a kind, concerned message about what a frightening experience this must have been, and told me a similar anecdote about a coworker.

Martin was one of those people I always carelessly assumed I’d get to know better some day, perhaps when I (some day) made it over to the U.K., or he (some day) came to visit the U.S. He occupied a small but not insignificant place in my brain, because he’d done so much to form my haiku poetics and I admired his work in so many areas. As people do, I feel an obscure sense of irrational guilt now that he’s gone: that I didn’t make more of an effort to get to know him, and that I couldn’t, so to speak, keep his car from going out of control on the ice.


 

after another
failure to communicate
green china tea

–Martin Lucas, Presence 19

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That’s what I mean by Poetic Spell. Words that chime; words that beat; words that flow. And once you’ve truly heard it, you won’t forget it, because the words have power. They are not dead and scribbled on a page, they are spoken like a charm; and they aren’t read, they’re heard. This is what I want from haiku: something primitive; something rare; something essential; not some tired iteration of patterns so familiar most of us can produce them in our sleep. It’s not the information content that counts, it’s the way that information is formed, cooked and combined. Poetic spells don’t tell us anything, they are something, they exist as objects of fascination in their own right. You can hold them in the light and turn them about and watch each of their facets gleam. They begin and end each reader’s unique reflection.

–Martin Lucas, “Haiku as Poetic Spell”

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(all day)

all day rain
I wonder what my name
should really be

all day rain
I make a list
of mistakes to make

all day rain
I live in a time
before my death

-—

Palm Sunday
two different men
with the same advice

Palm Sunday
a theory of war
that finally makes sense

Palm Sunday
a needle
sterilized with a match

——

High

There were several trees in our yard that I more or less lived in when I was a child. First there was a low, wide red maple with several trunks and many convenient branches. Even a very young child could climb it, if by “climb” you mean settle comfortably into the shelter of its trunks. I don’t remember ever not being able to climb it. I tied myself to it once when I was six or seven–one end of a string around my wrist, the other end around a middling-sized branch. I don’t know if I wanted to be part of it or what. It felt like family, in a weird Druidic way.

Then there was a Norway maple, situated farther from the house, down closer to the road, and with a lower branch unattainably high for small children, but still temptingly low. I aspired to it for several years. When I finally managed to make it up there, I transferred most of my affection to it from the red maple. When you climbed up and sat with legs dangling in that green crown, you were mostly invisible–it was a very different experience from crouching in the red maple in a direct line of sight from our kitchen window. I took books up there, naturally. That was mostly what I did as a child, read books and climbed trees. I was aware of and embraced the stereotype of the tree-climbing bookish child.

In the far back of our yard, which was large, there was a small apple orchard. The people who lived in our house before us had been agrarian–they had kept chickens, cultivated fruit, pruned things. Under our tenure the henhouse was converted to a playhouse and the apples all fell, stunted and wormy, to the ground and rotted. I was a little skittish about the apple trees because the ground beneath them was soft and slimy for a few months a year, but they were also irresistible, with their crooked, elaborate forms–impossible not to stare at. I spent a lot of time edging around them and looking for a way in, but they were really too crooked to climb; there was no room in them, even for a child.

I made the mistake of choosing, when it came time to choose a house to raise my own child in, a house with a yard with no climbable trees. The neighborhood is full of huge oaks, impressive but unapproachable. No one’s getting up them without ropes and harnesses. My son and his best friend next door were earthbound throughout their childhoods, a thing I mourned intermittently but they apparently didn’t, never having known another state. They did form a bond with the two large trees that stood between our properties, though. In the shelter of these trees was a rock that was good for sitting, and there they frequently sat; there they frequently spent hours; it was by way of a clubhouse, and they named this place, when they were still very small, the Nest. I could look out the kitchen window and see them there, being raised in part by trees. I think it was a good childhood.

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xylem and phloem out of excuses

Loose Change

There’s a coin in the Yale Art Gallery that was minted, they say, by either Marc Antony or Cleopatra. Antony’s head is on one side of the coin and Cleopatra’s on the other. The heads are the same size. There’s no clue which of them is supposed to be more important. So it’s either a Roman coin prominently featuring the lover of the Roman emperor, or an Egyptian coin prominently featuring the lover of the Egyptian queen.

I wonder whether the coin came before or after the assassinations, the children, the war. Or whether–regardless of who had the coins struck–Cleopatra kept one of them around, maybe on her dressing table (if she had a dressing table) to pick up and rub between her fingers while she was having kohl put on her eyelids or whatever. Or whether Antony sometimes pulled one out and tossed it in the air, waiting to see which side it would come down on, tossing over and over until he got the result he wanted, whatever result that was, and whatever it meant.

winter sun
chasing dust motes
through the museum

Frogpond 37.1

there is a season

I don’t think there’s anything essential about seasonal references in haiku, but I usually feel weird when I don’t use one, and that weird feeling bothered me for a long time. Was I secretly a haiku reactionary who was going to break out in 5/7/5 any day? Would I turn into one of those irritating people who berates other poets for using two season words in one haiku? Or start insisting that people whose middle line is shorter than the other two are doing it wrong? (Like, whatever, dude. Chill.) 

I felt better when I realized that it didn’t bother me in the least whether other people used seasonal references. (Or did any of that other stuff.) I just wanted to use them myself. It was important to me, emotionally if not artistically. And it took a presentation at last summer’s Haiku North America to help me figure out why. The presenter was the calm, elegant, and utterly impressive Patricia Machmiller, who’s long been associated with the Yuki Teikei Society — in other words, to a quite “traditionalist” approach to haiku. But she’s anything but doctrinaire–she’s a wonderful poet with an amazing feeling for language and an empathetic and flexible attitude toward writing haiku–and in her discussion of kigo I heard expressed for the first time some of my own unspoken, maybe even unrealized feelings about the importance of season words.

For Patricia, and for me, it’s not about “following the rules” by rotely sticking one of these “magic words” into a poem. It’s about, according to Patricia, “bringing the large feeling of the season into the small poem.” It’s about “bringing in eternity.” The seasons are a cycle and their rhythms are familiar to us from early childhood. I find I experience nostalgia most powerfully during the change of the seasons–the first spring flowers, the first yellow leaves, the first snowfall conjure up images of all these events from all the different periods of my life, of the things I was doing then, the people I was with, maybe even the historical events that were occurring. (Who in the eastern half of the United States doesn’t remember that 9/11 was a perfect, bright, crisp, clear September day?) References to the seasons remind me that I’m part of history and part of the human race and part of nature. Patricia also quoted John Stevenson on this subject: “Kigo represent the community of the living and the dead.”

Mentioning a season, essentially, is a shortcut to emotional resonance that’s effective for just about everyone in the world, or at least everyone who shares similar seasonal experiences. In a typical English twelve-syllable haiku, it’s just good budgeting to devote a few of those syllables to conjuring up a season. No, it’s not necessary. There are other ways to bring in that same resonance. (I’d like to get around to talking about several more of them over the next few weeks.) But it’s simple and amazingly effective. And it makes me feel better. And I no longer feel bad about that.

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warmer days
the wind chimes
change keys

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encased

t
h
a
w

in the icicle

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spring equinox
the cat takes advice
from the moon 

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from time
to time
birdsong

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__________________________________________________

With thanks to B.S. for the suggestion of subject matter.

(Whoa, dude. Do you know what your initials are?)

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